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Canberra (Reuters) - Australia's government on Wednesday touted its success in deterring asylum seekers from arriving by boat, even as it moved to further restrict access to information about its secretive immigration policies.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said government activity, which is believed to include returning vessels intercepted by Australian authorities to Indonesia, had dramatically reduced the number of refugees risking the perilous journey.
At the same time, he said the government would maintain its refusal to comment on "operational matters" and go one step further by cancelling a weekly media briefing he had instituted last year to discuss so-called Operation Sovereign Borders.
"Arrival rates have been significantly arrested in recent months and the establishment phase of the operation has been concluded," Morrison told reporters.
He declined to confirm reports that the navy had in recent weeks forced the return of a number of boats to Indonesia, the main departure point for people-smuggling boats headed to Australia carrying would-be refugees from around the world.
The number of refugees reaching Australia pales in comparison with other countries but it is a polarizing issue that also stokes tension with neighbor Indonesia over border policies criticized by the United Nations.
Morrison declined to provide any statistics for boat arrivals which have traditionally tended to ebb during the monsoon season, which usually ends in March.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott's pledge to "stop the boats" was one of the central platforms of his successful election campaign last year.
Since coming into office, however, the government has cited "operational security" to dismiss questions about how it is tackling asylum seekers, including media reports this week of a hunger strike an immigration detention center on Christmas Island.
Human rights groups have for years chronicled incidents of self-harm, hunger strikes and riots in Australia's detention centers.
Morrison confirmed that the government last month quietly made contract changes that protect navy personnel from individual criminal sanctions for any action taken under Operation Sovereign Borders, putting them on a similar footing to military personnel fighting a war.
The U.N. refugee agency has asked for information from the government, warning that Australia could be breaking international law if it is forcing boats back to Indonesia without proper regard for refugees' safety.
Abbott has himself likened the battle to stop the boats as a war, while claiming secrecy is important to prevent "the enemy" receiving information.
"In the end, we are in a fierce contest with these people-smugglers," Abbott said.
Lieutenant General Angus Campbell, who is in charge of Operation Sovereign Borders, confirmed reports that the navy had bought hard-top life boats for use in the mission.
Campbell declined, however, to confirm reports the vessels would be used to return asylum seekers to Indonesia, fuelling criticism from the opposition Labor Party.
"Tony Abbott promised to stop the boats, but all he's done is stop the briefings and hide the boats," Michelle Rowland, the opposition's spokeswoman for immigration, said in a statement.
Editing by Jane Wardell and Robert Birsel